Classical Music Indy: Music of Remembrance

NOTE Magazine
Publication Date


Dr. David Arbury, Contributing Writer

As part of CMI’s increased focus on diverse and multi-cultural communities, NOTE Magazine, will regularly feature music and music-makers from those diverse communities. It is important to us that the work we do be reflective of the communities we seek to reach. David Arbury, one of our esteemed writers and an accomplished composer, interviewed a friend of Classical Music Indy’s CEO, Charles Stanton, in observance of Jewish-American Heritage month. Mina Miller is a passionate musician, and the resulting feature here is a testament to the incredible work of an inspired and meaningful organization. We hope you enjoy learning about Music of Remembrance.

Music of Remembrance is a Seattle-based music organization that has risen to impressive prominence in the new music world in a relatively short time. The organization is not content to simply chronicle the artists and musicians from the camps of the Holocaust. Instead, founder Mina Miller has created a robust modern organization that includes new music commissions as a cornerstone of its mission. As a composer in Washington, DC and now Los Angeles, I have been aware of their extraordinary work for a long time, so it was my privilege to talk with Dr. Miller over the phone and ask her about her work and mission with Music of Remembrance.

Arbury: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me today. Could you tell us a little about you and
how you came to found Music of Remembrance?

When I founded MOR in 1998, I was responding to a personal calling. My parents were refugees who left Lithuania at a very good time — 1939 — but lost their entire families in the Holocaust. They spent years searching to find survivors, and it was a dark shadow to grow up under, so it was always in the back of my mind as a researcher and pianist that I might do something related to the Holocaust and music. When my husband took a position in Seattle, we decided that could be a permanent home and officially relocated. Through my research, I had a very good understanding of the role of music in the Holocaust, especially in short-term transit camps like Terezín where musicians, composers, teachers, and artists, against all odds, created a vibrant artistic life and community. In the very short time individuals would pass through the transit camp, they created art, and I found I identified with it strongly. I would look at the concert programs and see pieces that I would have put together and played, and it was a very strong connection with what my life would have been, had I been born in that time on the other side of the ocean and not made it to America. So it became a calling of something I wanted to bring to life. I felt that I wanted to do something more with music other than just being an entertainer, more than just presenting classical music as something people do for a nice evening out. I wanted concerts to be transformative in some way, that people would learn and experience the acts of defiance that took place during the Holocaust, that people played music and created art up to their very last moments.

ARBURY: Is the Seattle arts scene particularly conducive to your organization? What — if anything — makes it uniquely “Seattle?”

Our core artists are all Seattle-based and, over the years, we have developed a strong following and an outreach program. We work with schools and educators to develop a deep relationship with the community. We perform in the chamber space of Benaroya Hall, the home of the Seattle Symphony, and curate a series of concerts at the Seattle Art Museum, along with performances at the various schools and universities throughout the Seattle area. It’s not easy for us to be a touring company, but we are making our San Francisco debut soon and are very much looking forward to that. It is my hope that we can work up to the point where we can be Seattle-based but able to take some of this amazing music around the country, but the up-front costs are a tough hurdle. We have done one visiting program with
guest players, when I was invited to the Eastern Music Festival in North Carolina. I designed the program and traveled to speak at it but hired local players. While it was strange for me to not hear the music performed by our “regulars,” it was a very successful event. So we may explore those options again to bring this music to places far flung from Seattle, but of course, I’d prefer we be able to raise the funds to bring these wonderful Seattle musicians along with me.

Arbury: Music of Remembrance has existed since 1998 — a relatively short time — yet musicians are familiar with it all over the country. I know I have heard about it in my hometown of Washington, DC and my current home of Los Angeles. I have heard nothing but good things, which is a rarity in itself! What do you think is distinctive about your organization that sets it apart from other historical or musical organizations?

The one thing I know that composers
appreciate is that we get our commissioners on the Naxos label. Our typical way of working is that we will record a piece as part of the commission process along with performance, so every one of our commissions has been recorded and released on Naxos. I am sure that’s a factor, along with the fact that we have the best performers in the universe, a fact that is all the more amazing considering we have such a small budget. We are a tiny organization and really do run things on a shoestring. I always remember an old New Yorker cartoon that shows a dog at a computer talking to another dog next to him and saying, “On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog.” I think people see our website and our commissions and forget that we’re this tiny, little organization that puts on amazing concerts and funds these  incredible commissions all on a shoestring budget.

Arbury: Tell us about your educational outreach program, Sparks of Glory. I imagine that outreach focuses on both the historical aspect of Holocaust remembrance and on musical performance. How do those two missions co-exist in your outreach?

Our main partner for the outreach is the Seattle Art Museum, and I typically build our programs to compliment one of their exhibits. I annotate each of the works, creating a historical overview of the piece rather than just a musical presentation. In a regular concert, you might have program notes — notes you may or may not read — but in the education program, I can talk and introduce the music, building a strong connection between the art and the music. We just had one with an exhibit called Indigenous Beauty — an incredible collection of artifacts and tribal art —
and I thought to tie the theme of that exhibit to MOR’s mission of looking at how cultures maintain their identity and traditions under the threats of persecution. I wanted to look at the artifacts and find composers to highlight that connection, so we used the music of two Israeli composers and two American composers whose work focuses on topics like Hungarian Holocaust survivors or life both before and after World War II. That’s an example of how I would take a theme from the museum, talk about it terms of the art, and then extend it to the music, so it gives people an idea of why we listen to this music and how it fits. It’s very exciting tous as an organization to link the
art and music. All of our concerts— not just our outreach concerts — are linked thematically in some way, and having the opportunity to annotate them is very valuable. For the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz we held a concert of shorter pieces, and since I knew the audience would be mostly new to us, I did a two minute presentation
before each work before it was performed and was told by many strangers afterwards how meaningful it was to hear the context for the music. Because, otherwise, you’re just listening to pretty music and don’t know that Dick Kattenberg, who wrote a tap dance for fourhand piano, was murdered at 24, never having heard it performed, or you hear this beautiful sonata by Robert Dauber, who wrote it in Terezín and was then murdered in Dachau. You hear this music, and it’s light and joyous, and you realize the bottomless loss of these people with so much talent, all murdered in the camps. That face-to-face meeting of the composer behind the piece is so important and is a vital part of our outreach program. It’s really become a signature of MOR to find that connection between the composer and audience.

Arbury: This is an organization that is so focused on the Jewish experience and Jewish heritage, yet it also deals with topics and thoughts that concern all people. What place can all people — Jewish or not, musician and audience member alike — have in helping the mission of MOR?

MOR has never focused on just Jewish composers or Jewish performers, and it’s very important for me that it is not a “Jewish” organization but a music organization. It does have a very narrow focus and we adhere to that focus since that is the mission of the organization, but the organization itself is not Jewish. More and more we are focusing on artistic defiance, telling new stories to educate people of all ages. I think that is the way that non-Jews and Jews alike can connect to the mission of MOR by exploring these issues of resistance and artistic responsibility. Because, when an opera is elevated to be a life-changing experience, it calls on us to speak out against inhumanity wherever we see it, and I think that’s what we’re heading for. The works MOR plays today will build bridges between one generation and the next.

Arbury: Why is it important to commemorate tragedy through art and not simply with historical documentation?

Art sustains us. Death is finite, moments in history have a beginning and an end, but art is immortal. We cannot bring back the more than 6 million souls who perished, but we can restore and recover the music and art and let their witness speak to and through us. That means that as artists we can leave something behind and we can remember in a way that’s positive and moves us forward. I don’t see this as a memorial for musicians. We take memory forward, and one is amazed to find the joy and life in pieces from people who are being marched to the chambers, and it tells about the human capacity to endure. It then tells us something about ourselves, that we have our own human capacity to have this strength to be individuals, to endure and to enhance our own sense of humanity.

Music of Remembrance will be presenting their latest commission, Tom Cipullo and David Mason’s “After Life” on May 11 at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall and then again in San Francisco on May 18 at Temple Emanu-El, along with works by Holocaust-era and modern composers, including Jake Heggie’s “Farewell, Auschwitz.” You can support the work of this vibrant organization by going to their website where you will find their upcoming events, available recordings, and a link to donate.


Read the original article here.